End near for sedans with manual transmissions

Closeup of speedometer

Manual transmissions haven't disappeared yet, but they might well be on their way to joining the dodo bird and 8-track tape player -- at least in all but the European imports.

I recently drove the redesigned 2012 Nissan Versa around Seattle for a couple of hours at its media first-drive event.

Versa is Nissan's entry-level car that competes against the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo and so forth.

It is the least expensive sedan available, boasting a starting price of $10,990 for the 2012. Its closest competitor in price is the Aveo, costing a grand more.

To qualify for the bragging rights as the most affordable four-door on the market, Versa has a five-speed manual transmission.

The bare-bones base trim is the only Versa version available with the manual transmission.

If you want cruise control, rear speakers or a trunk light, you must pony up another $1,770 for the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that shifts automatically and almost imperceptibly when it is optimum for fuel economy and $350 for the optional cruise-control package.

Or you could just make the leap to the $14,560 SV trim that comes with the CVT, cruise control and many of the other passenger amenities, like full power accessories, that most consumers want.

All but ignoring the manual transmission in Versa, Nissan suits are convinced consumers, particularly sedan buyers, just don't want it.

Perhaps if it offered more options in the base model, Nissan would find a broader customer base for the manual transmission.

But studies and focus groups have indicated otherwise.

Nissan marketing types said they only expect about 5% of Versa buyers to take the manual transmission.

They reason that because of increasing traffic congestion and all the shifting of gears it causes, as well as automatic transmissions that get as good or better fuel economy than manuals, consumers are fleeing to automatics.

In tests for the EPA, the Versa CVT delivered 33 mpg in combined city and highway driving while the manual achieved a less impressive 30 mpg.

Only the European carmakers still seem wedded to manual transmissions in sedans.

When manual transmissions are all but omitted in entry-level sedans such as Versa, their future is indeed bleak.

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